Even though I’ve been personally and professionally involved in working with the psychology of what is called “shadow” material over the last thirty years, I still find it an incredibly challenging concept to deal with. I was first introduced to the shadow in psychotherapy where I was oriented toward it consciously for the first time. Whilst in the early days I was to find it challenging and exciting, I became increasingly dissatisfied in the way it is dealt with professionally.
Jung was the first to use the term shadow in a modern and psychological sense. He used it to indicate those aspects of the personality that were denied or rejected, and that subsequent retrieval would lead to a relative wholeness in the personality, unblocking creative and spiritual energies to allow the individual to pursue the path of “individuation”. As such the shadow is instrumental, integral and essential to this creative process.
What are these rejected and denied aspects? In general they relate to issues that society at large finds unacceptable and is unable to deal with creatively. In a psychological sense this allows us to see those aspects of ourselves that are denied; to begin to face them in our lives; to see the mechanisms that were employed to achieve this rejection in our upbringing and development, and thus to pursue their retrieval and integration at all levels of our being.
In the context of our society and its current values these issues are often related to the instinctual, and hence more physical and emotional dimensions of the individual; such as sexuality, aggression and power. Such issues should correctly be faced and integrated in the developmental process.
Unfortunately this is not always the case, and oftentimes power groups in society have an investment in this incompleteness, leaving the individual psychically divided and vulnerable. Retrieval means refacing these matters and the forces that caused their rejection in the original place. Consequently their re-emergence challenges us with guilt and fear, but also touch on excitement and the basic energetic matrices of our existence.
With the accessing and integration of these energetic levels we free up the spiritual and creative forces that, in my opinion, is where the true healing forces originate.
The therapeutic setting was designed to assist the facing of these issues in a way that is relatively safe and creative rather than destructive. A danger is that if they are solely expressed here it often becomes simply a mental achievement and not completely integrated at an energetic level, i.e. emotionally and physically as well. This I see as a huge danger of the psychotherapeutic process, for the therapist as well as the client. The therapist’s shadow is the controls that exist around him, be it by his training, peer pressure, or the demands of society.
From the challenging and exciting early days of the psychoanalytic tradition, when great risks were taken even to the point of occasional outlawing, we now have a situation where the formal therapy traditions are serving their position and peer groups more than the genuine interests of their clients. In this way the shadow can be driven more subtly underground, to resurface in a more potentially dangerous and destructive form. This is a malaise that permeates our collective society at present, often tacitly supported by the professions and traditions who should be more open in challenging the society and its deficiencies.
Although other therapeutic modalities have tried to come to grips with this by addressing the problem in its correct context e.g. bodywork for the physical and primal rebirthing for the more emotional facets, I believe the problem of the shadow is far from being correctly addressed in the current therapeutic traditions.
If shadow expression doesn’t erupt emotionally what other forms may it take?
The field of medicine is rampant with it, as unfortunately the body will bear the brunt, the consequent illnesses being more socially condoned and acceptable than emotional eruption. The illness is now sufficiently distanced from the emotional dimension not to attract judgement and potential condemnation. Indeed so common is this mechanism that physical illness attracts a ready support group (with the hidden agenda of “Thank God it’s not me!”), often with the diseased person taking the socially acceptable role of victim (a situation supported by many conventional institutions) and a ready-made medical industry to maintain the situation.
The Simontons in their pioneering work with cancer patients coined the expression that cancer was a “socially acceptable form of suicide”. This phrase in itself is enough to press buttons at many levels: outrage, condemnation and the like. In my experience it bears detailed and honest reflection of any disease process in general, and could be well dealt with in the fashion of a zen koan. Looked at from the energetic perspective cancer is a highly intense process, maybe misdirected because the available creative channels, be they psychological (e.g. emotional) or chemical (e.g. poisoning, or most likely a combination of both) have become blocked. At the collective level it makes sense that such thwarted energy seeks release and renewal elsewhere through the death process.
More sinister are the ecological dimensions of health, where our failure to deal with our poisons; heavy metal, chemical, and electromagnetic, makes our civilisation the largest uncontrolled medical trial in history. The results are not looking good, even though the denial (shadow) is still apparent with our custodians. Maybe we are undertaking our own culling process at a collective level and thus solving overpopulation?
However cancer and illnesses of a similar severity often represent the end point of this process. There are a plethora of physical complaints, not necessarily at the pathological level, that can be unravelled to reveal the emotional and hence energetic, creative and spiritual dimensions of the individual. Progressive working with such patients often shows a process that is at first physical but emerges into the emotional realms with the attendant psychological issues that need addressing.
Often this level of release is necessary before patients gain any sense of relief from the suffering of chronic problems, which I stress is different from the current notion of a “cure”. Most seek a cure from a misguided sense of perfection, and without often facing the work and challenge that illness demands of us and is the basis of true healing.
Mythologically the healer is associated with the mystic. If so, do we see traces of this in our current time? I believe so, certainly mystics of recent times such as Trungpa and Rajneesh were not frightened to explore these shadow dimensions with their devotees, recognising the necessity for such awareness to truly access spiritual development.
Which brings us to the contentious area of the magician, one also readily deplored, but the forces he/she wields I see as being indispensable to the healing process. However these forces always remain latent and ambivalent, hence the challenge and the danger. But in the realm of healing there is no change without entertaining the possibility of risk and sacrifice, and it is this that the magician is familiar in dealing with.
That is why the true magician is man or woman of spirit and works in the realm of healing. By dealing with such forces he or she is available to all sorts of risk, mainly via his own shadow, of course. Hence the correct perception that one dealing with these areas of healing must continually work with his or her own shadow. He or she who fails to do so does so at his or her own risk, and the temptations are great.
So what is the role of the shadow to evil? I find it continually paradoxical and challenging. However, in my many years of experience, I find no avenue for evil for those who genuinely work with their shadow, whom in fact I find the most spiritual people I have met. Hence my fondness for mystics who are courageous enough to embrace the challenge of both the shadow and the magician. The question of the independent existence of evil can be a distraction from the task on hand: facing the shadow.
For those who don’t face it the door remains always open. If this is so it implies that it is more likely to be present in those with whom the shadow is most subtly suppressed, and not those with whom it is a more obvious problem (our present youth, for example). This being the case it may reside with some of society’s custodians, if my thesis is at all correct. Maybe the shadows of the priests and politicians, behind the veil of moral goodness…
From the individual perspective facing the shadow is the ultimate moral challenge. It is the “dark night of the Soul” of the Christian mystic, the “underworld initiation” of the pagan. It requires us to meet the elemental forces of our existence: birth, sex, and death. It requires the courage to face our fears in a whole manner with attributes such as self-responsibility and insight, mechanisms like ritual, and a personal sense of commitment and discipline. To see aggression as the seed of compassion; power as the root of wisdom, and lust as the beginnings of true love and communion with the divine. Only then can we see the wider vision of humanity that encompasses yet transcends the shadow, in the creative and spiritual dimensions that embrace the essence of our existence.
Questions and Answers
Are you saying that conventional therapy has become an “establishment tool”?
In many ways, yes I am.
We are psychologically familiar with the pattern that when something “new” emerges in society it is first dealt with in fear and judgement, but later becomes integrated into the collective norms. The degree to which this integration is psychologically complete; that is, it transforms the previous status, depends upon how much this preceding position accepts the new challenge and is itself changed by it. Obviously this can be in degrees. This can be witnessed in all aspects of human existence: from the advent of Christianity through the life and myth of Jesus, to the changes in our collective position with respect to smoking.
The ideal of psychological therapy is that a patient or client comes with conflicts and inner divisions that are asking for reconciliation, and that this process has not been achieved with the mechanisms of his or her development. The therapist must then accept these conflicts in their entirety and allow the client to deal with them without judgement or prejudice.
From the individual perspective of the therapist this demands the capacity to deal and have largely dealt with their own conflicts – and this is why most therapeutic traditions put a trainee through a process as patient or client. This then puts the demand on the training therapist… and so on.
However, this situation is embedded in a collective one that contains issues such as professional accountability, licensing of therapists, regulatory bodies etc. even prior to the laws of that society. There are also the pressures of family of the client with their responsibilities and expectations, and beyond this the social and religious norms.
My experience and impression of this overall situation is that psychotherapy has, in general, failed this integrative process and is predominantly a tool of collective norms which haven’t themselves been changed by the advent of psychotherapy. I say this not only from experience, but also from watching the trend of psychotherapy’s acceptance and perception within the broader community over a generation, and also because it hasn’t become the dominant force that would have been expected if it were achieving its aims. The core factor in this failure, in my opinion, is the acceptance and adoption of therapy within the professional communities before it fully realised the depth of change within itself as a tool and art.
Does this mean all illness is psychosomatic?
Ultimately yes, and simply because it is fundamentally wrong to divide the body and mind; differentiate, yes, but divide, no. Human existence is fundamentally unified, and the body and mind, as well as emotions and spirit, are differing aspects of this fundamental unity. This is essentially the holistic philosophy that is permeating much of medicine and carries with it a new health paradigm.
In dealing with any illness we have to be cognisant of these differing dimensions and deal with them appropriately, which means in response to the demands of the healing process itself. What this means is that if someone comes with a physical illness such as cancer, and the complaint is of a physical nature, then this must be addressed first. What may happen in the course of any management is that this leads to emotional, social, creative or spiritual issues. Then it is appropriate to deal with these. The demand on the therapist or healer is to recognise these different “signs” and refer appropriately if he or she is not competent to deal in the new realm.
What I would like to stress is there is no place to inflict mental judgement on an illness; a common practice currently. This can often be subtle and take the form of a preceding experience or interpretation; for example, a back problem is due to “lack of support” in the life of the person inflicted. This may be the case, but there is a world of difference between someone in pain being told this – which simply increases the psychological burden and adds further weight to the physical – and the patient coming to that realisation themselves. Self help manuals and books that take this position strike me as being in conflict with healing as a process.
You seem to distinguish between healing and curing, can you elaborate?
Certainly, as this is a most common confusion.
Curing is essentially about the removal of a problem. This is the expectation we have when we visit a conventional medical practitioner; we may have a cold and we want him or her to do something to rid us of it.
Curing is really part of the healing process, which needs to be looked at more broadly: so, a cure may occur within a healing process, but it may not. When it doesn’t, this does not mean that healing hasn’t occurred. For example, someone with an illness such as cancer may be simply dying and the disease is the mechanism they have opted for (at whatever level) in this process. And this should not be a shock, as we all die somehow. In this situation the healing process may be one of personal recollection, grief of separation from loved ones, and spiritual reconciliation with physical treatments supporting this process and alleviating symptoms that interfere with this.
In this situation, death cannot be looked upon as a failure. However in many cases this is so, and points out something significant. In my experience the healing professions have a significant number of personnel who are frightened of disease and death: they may even have been attracted to their profession to face and reconcile this fear. However, if this reconciliation doesn’t occur then it will be perceived in people they treat and any management will be governed by this fear. This is the professional shadow.
It takes courage to listen to the demands of any illness and to follow its dictates. But this is essential, and is the governing factor in the healing process.
You connect healing with magic, this seems a little strange?
Not really. In most traditional cultures the healer is recognised as a shaman.
The shaman is usually someone who has undergone a severe physical or psychological crisis (usually both together) which is often life threatening. An established shaman in a culture “recognises” that this illness is not leading to death but is an experience which, when integrated, will induct the person as a shaman, and that the established shaman is there to assist this process. There we have the notion of firsthand experience of illness being the prerequisite of a healing professional, immortalised in the concept of the “wounded healer”.
However, the shaman is also integrally involved in the spiritual reality of his or her culture, and undergoes a complex training in the medicinal arts that includes spiritual experience and instruction through ritual, ceremony and the like.
The shaman is the forerunner of the magician, though in our culture he or she has become more associated with the spiritual realities and not healing. And this is exactly my point, that this separation has created its own shadow in our helping professions and that the healer needs to be at least familiar with the spiritual connection to the healing process, otherwise he or she may be able to cure, but they can’t heal.
It is also salutary to recall that the spiritual icon of our culture – Jesus – was also a man with profound healing abilities.
Could you explain a little more the relationship between shadow and evil?
A book in itself….
It is interesting that cultures that do not have a monotheistic religious culture generally do not have a distinct concept of evil. In other words when we posit an absolute goodness we also create it’s opposite. Most cultures do not see these patterns as opposites, but as interconnected patterns in a whole picture, and hence the richness and complexity of the gods and goddesses in their pantheons.
This creates a psychological attitude in us, so that instead of seeing opposites as relative – that is, related to each other – we tend to see them as separate and in conflict. We have done this with mind and body, for example.
This is how shadow is created, when aspects of our existence meet a judgement that says either good or bad; the shadow becomes the bad. The problem is that good and bad become so separated that it makes facing and reconciling the bad very difficult and disruptive, such that we create many psychological mechanisms to keep the bad in its box.
This is shadow, not evil, because it is personal. The moral demand for wholeness is that we face and integrate this shadow material, with what is already conscious – not to replace it (though we often feel it will!). In some ways evil can be seen as a collective shadow, or one that predominates because of our society’s position on particular issues. So the personal and collective shadows are usually strongly related.
All goes well unless there is an eruption of shadow material from the collective level, in which case it is through the personal shadow. The classic example of this in our recent history is what gripped Europe earlier the twentieth century.
The only protection from such an eruption is dealing with shadow material at a personal level. Unfortunately, in not doing this we readily project it onto other individuals and groups and so add to the pool of the collective shadow.
In this way we are the architects of our own evil.